mike koozmin/the s.f. examinerCaramad Conley was given 12 life sentences after two murders in 1989

SF man struggled to catch up to a world transformed while he sat falsely imprisoned for years

Caramad Conley is a 40-year-old San Francisco man who until recently had never used the Internet, never made a call on a cellphone and learned to use a CD player in 2008.

There is a simple explanation for this man's story: In 1995, Conley was sentenced to life in prison for his alleged role as a 19-year-old in a 1989 double murder in Hunters Point.

Years later, in January 2011, Conley walked out of the Hall of Justice — the same jail where he spent two years awaiting trial in the 1990s — a free man.

“I often describe prison like living and dying at the same time,” he recently told The San Francisco Examiner, pointing out that his 12 life sentences guaranteed he would die in prison. “But I was also alive because of hope.”

In July, the City Attorney's Office recommended San Francisco settle Conley's civil-rights lawsuit and pay him $3.5 million.

Conley was convicted of the crimes — a drive-by shooting that killed two and injured three others — based on the testimony of two men. The prosecution had no physical evidence or witnesses.

In 2011 at age 40, Conley was released after being exonerated because a key witness recanted his testimony and evidence that had been withheld from the trial was discovered.

A team of pro bono attorneys revealed in the course of the efforts to free Conley — and the subsequent federal civil-rights case — that detectives and the prosecutor failed to notify Conley's lawyer that the witness who recanted his statements was once on the Police Department's payroll and another key witness said he was persuaded to testify against Conley through conjugal visits inside the Hall of Justice with a woman who later became his wife.

How the case came to those lawyers is a story in itself, as is the tale of the two homicide detectives whose actions helped put Conley in jail.

But for the past three years, Conley has simply been getting used to his new life, out of jail but away from all that he had known for almost two decades.

LOST IN TIME

Returning to San Francisco was a surreal homecoming.

The men he knew growing up were still in prison, and family members he spent so many years away from were gone.

“My mom never once stepped foot in a prison,” he said, explaining that she could not fathom visiting her son and not walking out with him.

But reconnecting with friends and family was not the strangest thing Conley had to confront. The truly strange reality was the sea change in technology.

“Technology was the main thing,” he said about the societal shift that came about as Conley was going behind bars.

On the inside of more than a dozen prisons, all he knew about the outside world came to him through newspapers, magazines, television and radio. And even that information only lightly touched upon the major changes taking place.

Take for instance the subtle things Conley started to notice after he went to prison. Sometime in the mid-1990s, Conley started seeing cellphone ads in newspapers.

“Why are all these different kinds of phones in here?” he asked to himself.

The glacial pace with which the California Department of Corrections brought technology to its facilities did not help. Cassette tapes were used until 2008, said Conley, who only learned how to use a CD player that same year.

Also in 2008, he saw for himself the power of computing and was given an inkling of the changes going on in the real world.

“I used to always hear about 'the world is at your fingertips,'” Conley said. “We heard all this stuff, but we couldn't make it out.”

When he sat in front of a desktop computer and started typing search terms into a 2007 version of Encarta encyclopedia, the world was, well, at his fingertips. At least it felt like that to Conley.

It was not the Internet, but the sheer volume of information on the disk hooked Conley.

“Man, that thing just blew me away. I couldn't believe how much information was on that disk,” said Conley, who excitedly told his fellow inmates of his discoveries.

Like all other inmates, Conley was allowed only 10 books in his cell, including magazines. Encarta had more information on it than all the books in the prison combined.

“Ever since then, coming home, that's what I've really gravitated toward,” he said of technology.

But the technological changes have not all been so easy to take, at least not at first.

Conley could not stand all the beeping and chirping his brother's iPhone made, and it was difficult to understand why people would carry around such a distracting device.

But when he realized people's phones were really just little computers, his perception shifted.

“Arguments can be settled in a nanosecond,” Conley said. “You can just Google it.”

Now smartphones — GPS, Google Street View — help him navigate an open world after so many years of confinement.

“I have a fear of being lost, which is why I love that I have a smartphone and GPS,” he said.

And those years of confinement have made it difficult at times when's he's out of his comfort zone.

“It can be very overwhelming,” Conley said.

STILL IN HIS FACE

Conley may have taken technological changes in stride, and even used them as a guide to the world outside prison, but such shifts have yet to completely reach the legal system.

He knows.

One morning a couple months ago, he was pulled over by a San Francisco police officer and given a fix-it ticket for the slight tint in his car's rear windows.

But the police officer wouldn't let him go after he handed over the ticket.

“Someone wants to talk to you, someone's coming to talk to you,” the officer told Conley.

“Who wants to talk to me?” he asked.

Finally, the officer was able to determine that Conley was a cleared man, no matter what it said on his rap sheet.

When Conley went to the Hall of Justice to find out why his record was not updated, he was shown the long list of charges related to the 1989 murders.

Atop the list was a note. It directed officers who might pick up Conley to call two detectives. They were the men who originally arrested him and helped put him away.

One of those detectives is long retired. The other is dead.

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